49ers

49ers directly impacted by biggest position upgrades of NFL offseason

49ers directly impacted by biggest position upgrades of NFL offseason

With the vast majority of the top NFL free agents having signed with teams by now, we have a better idea of which areas certain teams are likely to improve in, as well as those in which they might decline.

Generally speaking, the 49ers have received very positive reviews for the developments of their offseason. They have addressed some of their biggest needs, and even managed to deal with Joe Staley's retirement on the fly while theoretically improving his spot on the offensive line in trading for Trent Williams. That said, it shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise that none of San Francisco's transactions were included among ESPN's Mike Clay's 25 biggest position upgrades of the NFL offseason. After all, when you have as stacked of a roster as the 49ers had last season, there isn't as much room to go up.

Just because the 49ers weren't included in Clay's rankings, however, doesn't mean they won't be significantly impacted by the top position upgrades in the league. In fact, there's a high likelihood San Francisco will be directly affected by each of what Clay has determined to be the three biggest upgrades in the NFL.

The single biggest position upgrade of the NFL offseason, according to Clay, is the one most certain to impact the 49ers of the top three. Why? Because the player providing the upgrade most recently played for San Francisco: defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

"Colts general manager Chris Ballard said early in the offseason that the Colts' defensive scheme runs through the three-technique tackle," Clay wrote. "He put his money where his mouth is not long after, trading for Buckner. The 26-year-old was arguably the 49ers' best player during a 2019 season that saw the team advance to the Super Bowl. Buckner's 7 1/2 sacks tied for sixth, his 12 tackles for loss fifth and his 61 total tackles ninth among interior defensive linemen."

While Buckner will be a tremendous upgrade for the Colts over the incumbent Margus Hunt, he simultaneously leaves a giant void in the middle of the 49ers' dominant defensive line. San Francisco is counting on first-round draft pick Javon Kinlaw, as well as veteran D.J. Jones, to ensure that the 49ers don't suffer a corresponding downgrade.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Coming in at No. 2 on Clay's list is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers replacing quarterback Jameis Winston with Tom Brady. Out of the top three, this one is the least likely to directly affect San Francisco.

While Brady actually produced an identically-poor quarterback rating (53.7) to Winston last season, the upgrade primarily is based on Brady's winning track record and his comparatively superior ability to limit turnovers. The Buccaneers made as much noise as any team during free agency, and Brady is a big reason why they have the third-best odds (+625) to come out of the NFC according to FOX Bet.

The 49ers (+460) currently are the favorites in the NFC, and while they won't face Tampa Bay during the regular season, there's certainly a decent chance the two teams could encounter each other in the playoffs. Not to mention, the Buccaneers appear likely to be one of the few teams capable of contending with San Francisco for the lone first-round bye in the conference. The 49ers had no trouble with Winston last season, but Brady potentially could be a different story.

And, finally, coming in as the third-biggest position upgrade on Clay's list is the Arizona Cardinals replacing Damiere Byrd with All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins. San Francisco seems likely to feel the brunt of that development more than most.

"Cardinals GM Steve Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury were not shy about their interest in adding an impact wide receiver during the offseason," Clay wrote. "It's fair to say their mission was accomplished when they fleeced Houston by landing one of the league's best pass-catchers in Hopkins in exchange for a package that included David Johnson. An absolute workhorse, Hopkins has averaged a target share of at least 30 percent while ranking no lower than 10th in targets, receptions, receiving yards and end zone targets each of the past three seasons."

Hopkins is on the shortlist of the very best receivers in the NFL, and now the 49ers must face him at least twice a season. The Texans received a laughable return in the trade as Arizona secured a true No. 1 target for reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray. It's quite possible that the Cardinals now are San Francisco's main competition in the NFC West, and Hopkins is a big part of that. Arizona pushed the 49ers to the brink in both of their matchups last year, and Hopkins should make them considerably scarier on offense.

[RELATED: 49ers stand to benefit from Seahawks' questionable moves]

So, yeah, the 49ers have had a good offseason, but clearly, they're not the only ones. 

Why 49ers should explore David Njoku trade with Browns after demand

Why 49ers should explore David Njoku trade with Browns after demand

The 49ers have the best tight end in football in George Kittle, but reportedly were interested in adding Austin Hooper in free agency to form undoubtedly the best 1-2 punch at the position in the NFL. Nothing came of that, of course, as Hooper eventually signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in March.

Though San Francisco never would have been able to offer Hooper that large of a contract -- the team has its hands full with Kittle's next deal -- Hooper's decision to sign with Cleveland could open the possibility of the 49ers adding another talented tight end. Ironically, that tight end happens to play for the Browns.

For now, at least.

Browns tight end David Njoku has requested a trade and would like to be moved before the start of training camp, his agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Friday. Cleveland reportedly expressed that it would prefer to hang on to Njoku, but the fourth-year player apparently has his mind made up.

"It is in David's best interest to find a new team at this time,"‬ Rosenhaus told Schefter.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

The motivation behind Njoku's request undoubtedly is tied to the Browns not only signing Hooper in free agency, but also using a fourth-round pick on Harrison Bryant -- who plays the same position -- in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The timing of the request isn't a coincidence either. On Wednesday, Njoku parted ways with his previous agent, Malki Kawa, and signed with Rosenhaus. Last November, Rosenhaus helped orchestrate a trade of another one of his clients, running back Duke Johnson, out of Cleveland after a similar request.

So, clearly, Njoku isn't satisfied with his current situation and wants out. It's understandable, not just for the aforementioned reasons, but also due to the fact that he was in Freddie Kitchens' dog house last season. Kitchens has since been fired and replaced by former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, but apparently the damage has been done.

Njoku, 23, is coming off a down year in which he sustained a broken wrist and a concussion in Week 2. He appeared in only two more games throughout the rest of the season, hauling in five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown. The prior season, however, Njoku was impressive, catching 56 passes for 639 yards and four scores. 

A first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Njoku is extremely athletic. He ranked in the 98th percentile in the broad jump (11-foot-1), 97th percentile in arm length (35 1/4 inches), 90th percentile in the vertical jump (37 1/2 inches) and 80th percentile in the 40-yard dash (4.64 seconds) at the NFL Scouting Combine.

To compare, Kittle -- who went in the fourth round of that very same draft -- ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at nearly an identical size, but otherwise performed worse than Njoku in each of those metrics. Kittle's arm and hand lengths also were considerably shorter.

Now, obviously, Kittle has developed into a force of nature and become the fulcrum of the 49ers' offense. He is a far superior all-around player to Njoku at this point, but if they played together, they'd likely both become even bigger mismatches than they already are.

Clearly, the 49ers like operating out of two tight-end sets. It allows coach Kyle Shanahan to have more creativity in his play-calling, particularly considering Kittle's excellence as a run-blocker. The reported pursuit of Hooper certainly was with that strategy in mind, and although Njoku isn't as good as Hooper, he could be a tremendous addition to San Francisco's offense.

Remember how dominant the New England Patriots were with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Both extremely talented players in their own right, they were nearly indefensible when put together. Kittle already is on that Gronk level, but the 49ers don't have a Hernandez-type to go with him. Njoku might be as close as they could get -- without all of the additional baggage.

Njoku will make $1.8 million this coming season in the fourth year of his rookie contract. The Browns also picked up his fifth-year option back in April, which will pay him about $6.4 million for the 2021 season. Though San Francisco doesn't have a ton of cap space to work with -- much of it has been set aside for Kittle's extension -- Njoku offers cost certainty for the next two seasons at a reasonable price. If the 49ers could get him without being forced to give up or get rid of something of major significance, it might be worth their while.

[RELATED: Report: Kittle's contract could land around $13M annually]

Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported Friday that the Browns likely would want a first-round draft pick in return for Njoku. That's downright laughable, and never going to happen. They'll be lucky to get a Day 2 pick from any team in the league, and San Francisco wouldn't do that either. A conditional Day 3 pick, perhaps? Now we're getting somewhere.

That might not be enough to acquire Njoku, but there's no reason for the 49ers to offer more than that. He would be a luxury for San Francisco, not a necessity.

Tom Brady's Joe Montana, Jimmy Garoppolo connection made him 49ers villain

Tom Brady's Joe Montana, Jimmy Garoppolo connection made him 49ers villain

When thinking about a villain, most will think of a maniacal figure lurking in the shadows hellbent on destruction and devastation. In sports, the term is a little broader.

It is reserved both for athletes and coaches who have authored devastation and heartbreak for a fan base: Think Eli Manning for the New England Patriots. It also can be someone whose mere presence and personality makes your skin crawl: Think Floyd Mayweather (boxing skills aside) for most sane people.

Some athletes are born to be the villain. Some have it thrust upon them. For others, their achievements and greatness transform them into the villain, with that role serving as new-found motivation to desecrate their opponents.

When it comes to Tom Brady, his villainy is multi-layered. A sixth-round draft pick who became, in my opinion, the greatest quarterback in the history of football is a Hollywood story everyone would love if they slapped a Disney logo on it.

Or, maybe that movie ends with Brady leading the Patriots to a win in Super Bowl XXXVI. The 20 years that followed saw Brady slowly transform from a feel-good story into something else entirely.

A kid from the Bay who grew up idolizing Joe Montana, only to eventually join the 49ers legend atop the all-time quarterback hierarchy, is inspiring. Perhaps, in theory, you'd think those in the Bay Area would laud Brady's success.

He hasn't ripped their heart out time and time again like he did the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. The 49ers weren't on the other end of a Deflategate scandal that had absolutely no impact on a conference championship game walloping. That was the Indianapolis Colts.

Brady didn't erase a 28-3 Super Bowl lead to stun the 49ers into a meme-filled existence from which they can't escape. That was the Atlanta Falcons.

There is no direct correlation to the annoyance and dislike many in Northern California appear to have for Brady. There's no seminal moment for 49ers fans to point to, like Raiders fans have with the "Tuck Rule" game.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

With Brady, it has been villainy by 1,000 cuts. The NFL rags-to-riches story got old quick. The wins piled up. The arrogance from the Patriots and their fans grew. It festered under the surface of every other opposing fan base as they rooted not solely for their team to win, but also for Brady to suffer a humiliating defeat. A dream that seemed to never come true. Strike one.

After Brady and the Patriots ripped the Falcons' soul out of their chest in Super Bowl LI, the kid who grew up idolizing Montana had suddenly supplanted him in the eyes of many (mine included). I'll be the first to say that GOAT debates are among the most pointless exercises we undergo in sports. People have their opinions, and no stats, anecdotes or records are going to change that.

Like the American political landscape, most people have dug their trenches so deep that they are bound to stay in them until a killer asteroid vaporizes us all as we debate passing yard records and Super Bowl wins.

But with Montana's legacy under assault for the first time in two decades, 49ers fans started to assemble in defense of their GOAT. The idol of an age of supremacy long past must not be tipped over and replaced. So, Brady came to personify an assault on the greatness of the 49ers' golden era.

He became a constant reminder that the NFL had passed the 49ers by as they tried to rediscover their glory, while on a decade-plus long search for a quarterback to replace Steve Young.

Watching a Bay Area native who grew up bleeding red and gold win title after title and challenge Montana as the GOAT -- when they drafted Giovanni Carmazzi instead of him -- was a blunt force trauma that's been nearly impossible to recover from whether they admit it or not.

The distaste has lulled a bit in recent years, but then this past offseason came. Brady, a free agent, was interested in coming to the 49ers to replace Jimmy Garoppolo and do what his former protegee couldn't: Lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl title.

Brady, based on reports at the time, had forced the Patriots to trade Garoppolo in 2017, not wanting to have to look over his shoulder at the heir apparent as his career wound down. The 49ers were the beneficiary of Brady's thin skin, acquiring a quarterback who piloted them to a Super Bowl berth for pennies on the dollar.

Garoppolo became the 49ers' guy, the franchise quarterback they had longed to find since Young left (Colin Kaepernick should have been that guy, but that's for another column).

Now Brady, after being worn down by Belichick after 20 years in Foxboro, had the arrogance to try and replace their guy. Garoppolo's shortcomings became a topic of every TV debate show. The wolves were once again at the gates, and a different QB1 now had to be defended from Brady and his believers.

Surely, Brady would have presented a more immediate upside in 2020. But his end his near, and the 49ers Faithful didn't want to be holding the bag when the TB12 Method careens into a ravine.

The belief that you're always the better option no matter the person you're trying to supplant is an arrogance reserved for those who have known only success. Those whose minuscule failures in life have been forgotten, a distant memory of a time when you weren't a six-time Super Bowl champion who is married to a supermodel and believes in some weird pseudoscience witch-doctor medicine that can extend your prime long past when Father Time rings the bell.

And that is everyday villainy that's hard to connect with or root for.

[RELATED: Brady's virus dismissal reason sports should remain paused]

For what it's worth, I don't believe Brady is a villain. He's not the NFL's Joker trying to sow chaos, or Vontaze Burfict running around headhunting for sport. At his core, he's a nerdy guy who reached the peak of his profession and has rarely failed in any pursuit. 

Success is hard for some to stomach and cheer. Jealousy takes over. Could-haves and what-ifs can torment the mind, and hate fills the heart even when you personally haven't been wronged.

Brady's path from Montana fanboy to Bay Area villain (and I use that term lightly), comes not from being a specter of defeat in the postseason or a division rival. It is not his on-field exploits that garner vitriol. Sure, the Make America Great Again hat, the coronavirus dismissal and the belief that drinking water can stop sunburns make him easier to dislike. It's all part of the package, but not a driving force.

But his presence and the ties to Montana and Garoppolo are a constant reminder that the quest to rekindle the 49ers' former glory still is ongoing. He has become a symbol for greatness lost, opportunities missed and paths 49ers fans wish would have been traveled.